Cars 2, Larry the Cable Guy, Owen Wilson, Pixar, review

As you probably know, Cars 2 came out this weekend. And, as you probably know, most critics didn’t like it. Cars 2 has the dubious distinction of being the first “rotten” movie in Pixar’s 15-year production history.

Unfortunately, this is probably what Cars 2 will be most readily identified with – a punctuation mark on unsurpassed era of critical praise. This is unfair for a number of reasons.

The peripherals of Pixar’s films include a legacy of quality, critical response to that standard, box office success and merchandising ubiquity. In many ways, this is a Jenga stack that was destined to tumble. As each new film is released, any small imperfection will be magnified and exploited before the tower falls.

In this case, Cars 2 has the unfortunate distinction of being released behind Toy Story 3 which was Pixar’s most profitable, best reviewed film to date. Next to that, nearly anything would have looked like a pale imitator.

But does that mean that Cars 2 is a bad movie? No, it’s not. Is it a great movie? Well, no. Not exactly. Then what is it? Cars 2 is a perfectly serviceable piece of family entertainment that moves briskly, entertains thoroughly and doesn’t insult the audience’s intelligence. That sounds like faint praise. But neither is it condemning damnation.

I guess walking out of the theater, the question that I tried to answer was “Is Cars 2 worse than the original Cars?” My conclusion was, “It isn’t!” So, by that logic, how can it be the worst Pixar movie of all time. Or, at the very least “rotten?”

Well, I would say that there we some opportunities missed. Unlike the original Cars, whose theme was basically “Slow down and enjoy life,” Cars 2 serves up a tepid lesson about letting your friends be who they are. It doesn’t exactly resonate.

Additionally, I find that one’s enjoyment of Cars 2 weighs heavily on their ability to tollerare comedian Larry the Cable Guy as the faithful tow truck, Mater. Make no mistake about it – Cars 2 is his movie. Either you’re okay with that or you’re not.

In the negative reviews I’ve read, most critics aren’t okay with that. It’s understandable why. As a character, Mater is well-meaning, but best in small doses. Regrettably, what Cars 2 does is makes him slightly more insufferable and ignorant so Owen Wilson (as racing superstar Lightning McQueen) has a reason to push him away in the film’s first act.

This feels a little disingenuous to the character. Despite Mater’s country-bumpkin exterior, in the original Cars, he at least seemed to have some awareness of how others perceived him. I’m thinking specifically when Lightning McQueen is brought in front of a Paul Newman’s Doc Hudson to answer for tearing up the main drag in Radiator Springs. When Bonnie Hunt as Sally shows up, Lightning McQueen is awestruck. Even moreso when Mater says Sally is his financée. “What?!” Lighning says, incredulously. “I’m just kiddin’,” Mater responds. “She jus’ likes me for my body.”

None of that self-awareness is on display in Cars 2 and Mater feels like he’s taken a step backwards as a result.

The resulting lack of message or character progression can make Cars 2 feel somewhat shallow if you listen to your inner cynic. “This is just a money grab!” “They want to sell more toys!” You’re inner cynic is right, by the way. I’m just saying that doesn’t mean Cars 2 is a bad film.

In terms of scope, creativity, design and attention to detail, Cars 2 delivers exactly the way you expect a Pixar movie to. In fact, once the dust settles and people seriously sit down and consider Cars and Cars 2 side-by-side, I think they will agree with that assessment. From a technical perspective, Cars 2 is every way superior to its predecessor. Animation buffs will be dissecting it for years.

Considering that Pixar has always been a studio that trumpted the value of “Story First,” Cars 2 failings in this area makes the rest of the film seem like a sell-out. I don’t feel that way because I never felt like the film was wasting my time.

The more I think about it, the more I acknowledge that maybe I have my “fanboy blinders” on. But I guess I feel like I see both sides of the equation. I know where Cars 2 doesn’t work but I don’t feel like that diminishes the accomplishments of what DOES work about the film. Therefore, I don’t feel like critics are necessarily justified in punishing the movie with abysmal reviews for an otherwise inoffensive and acceptable film.

If it was a Dreamworks movie on the other hand, maybe we could talk. 😉